Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: October 30, 2015
I sit in the waiting room at a Vietnamese government hospital that I arbitrarily picked from a list of hospitals closest to my job. I open my phone and scroll through the same email I’ve read a million times: Fulbright Application Status (Principal). The words energize and fill me, coursing down to my core and back. I didn’t expect this, but the unexpected is amazing and unbelievable and entirely mine. I barely hear the nurse call for me; I’m too busy envisioning my future in Malaysia and all the new friends and classrooms I’ll decorate. I can feel my brain stretching in anticipation of all my new experiences and opportunities for travel. This physical is part of my pre-departure tasks and one step closer towards my destiny. This physical is everything.
Arrival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: January 4, 2016
My new roommate and two other girls from my cohort haphazardly choose a table in the outdoor restaurant opposite of the hotel. The air sticks to me, cooled only momentarily by a single rotating fan. I remember when I first moved abroad months ago and felt all of this: stunned and eager and unsure where to begin. Now, Vietnam has slipped far behind me. My physical, the last piece of puzzle, fit perfectly into its place (“Your enlarged lymph node is nothing a few antibiotics can’t fix,” said my doctor at the Vietnamese hospital. “The fine needle aspiration came up clear; you are healthy and ready to teach!”)
Suddenly, right side driving is replaced with left and bánh mì with roti canai and pagodas with mosques and cảm ơn with terima kasih (thank you). The words feel foreign and satisfying every time I say it: I teach in Malaysia now. I am a Fulbright grantee. This is where I am supposed to be. We sit there in a sleep-deprived and disoriented stupor until a waiter comes over and kindly motions that we can order from him. I’m experiencing everything at once and want to share it all, but each newness bleeds into the next. I know I should be writing my way through this before I miss all the little details along the way, but I keep telling myself: I’ll always have tomorrow or the day after that or the day after that. Over metal trays of crunchy and stuffed thosai dipped in a rainbow of curries in tiny, tin bowls, we unload our two-minute stories: Where are you from? Where did you go to school? What was your major? First time in Kuala Lumpur? From the moment I arrive at the hotel, I feel overwhelmed and overloaded, pressured to make friends and be interesting. But somehow, everything feels so right. Somehow, everything is falling into place.
“In this country America means white. Everyone else has to hyphenate.”
Whole Group Orientation in KL, Malaysia: January 4-18, 2016
We all have two and some weeks together during orientation before we scatter across Malaysia to our respective placements. The fierce and brilliant and beautiful women of my cohort make me smile and laugh and think deeply about my identity and experiences in Malaysia. From the weird to the infuriating to the quirkiest of interactions, we arm each other with words of encouragement and validation.
“Are you American… or another?” A taxi driver asked me earnestly one night; unable to place where I am from. My English, stretched and enunciated so he knows the value of my native tongue, stutters at first. “Well,” I begin. “I’m an American, but also Filipino.” I throw in my teaching credentials for a good measure. He brightens at the word cikgu (teacher) and nods approvingly. “The American cikgu,” he says, delighted.
I think about that idea: An Other. At least in Malaysia, I am an Other by default. Then I think about my life in America, also othered as an outside ethnicity, the one with the weird food at lunch or strange customs or seemingly incomprehensive second language or ultra-restrictive parents. I enter here as the outsider, as both an expert and othered body, but I still don’t know how to reconcile these selves when sharing the English language and American culture. At least in Malaysia, there is an overt (mis)understanding of what it means to be or to look American, and I find my hyphenated identity in continual opposition with just how American I am. Sometimes I feel it shouldn’t have to be my place to tell strangers: yes I am American, yes I am Filipino. Most times, I feel it is part of my role here, to help others understand the different faces and shapes and ethnicities that America takes; it is not all just one. With each interaction or look or assumption, I wonder: what does it mean to be Asian American abroad, or for that matter, in America? How will my identity shape my experience? How will my community respond to this face: not quite white, not quite another?
KL, Malaysia: January 16, 2016
On our last Saturday morning in Kuala Lumpur, I stand at the threshold of the Gombak jungle, the same jungle our entire cohort will be trekking into for the majority of the day. Dewy leaves wink in the early morning light and mosquitos buzz around my legs. The guides mime how to avoid leeches and unsheathe their machetes and treat us with anecdotes of the waterfall at the end.
I’m on the phone and feel hurried. I can feel wandering, curious eyes on me, so I smile reassuringly at one of my friends who stares at me quizzically and mouths, Are you okay? I really don’t know, but walking feels better; standing away from the group feels calmer. There’s a lonely-looking black cat, his ribcage jutting against his white tummy, that stops and also stares at me, unperturbed. A few seconds later, he slinks away.
I’m on the phone with a nurse from a private hospital in Malaysia. The same private hospital I visited days ago, where I received a mostly quick, mostly painless biopsy. I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that something was wrong, despite being told in Vietnam I am perfectly healthy and fine. At the time, I didn’t feel nervous. I watched the surgeon glide the handle of the ultrasound bulb over my neck, veins pulsating and nodes stretching and sliding in and out of static view on the tiny monitor. “This is a very routine procedure,” he said to me, as he inserted an 18-gauge needle into my neck. He did this three times, each time the tip cracking into the lymph node’s core and taking a sample. “I have no doubt you will be fine.”
True or false: hospitals don’t give you really bad news over the phone.
I’m on the phone, restless and waiting. Don’t be bad, don’t be bad—I keep repeating this mantra in my head because the unthinkable is unthinkable and I’m about to go on a jungle hike. I’ll just call back later.
The nurse from the clinic returns to the line. “Hello? Your biopsy is in. Has anyone talked to you yet?” She asks and the line goes quiet for a moment. I think I make a sound because she continues talking. “I am so sorry to tell you this now, but we found suspected lymphoma. We need to do more tests, but need your consent to do so.”
The voice is still talking, telling me things, but I’m stuck on that lymphoma thing she mentioned. “Excuse me,” I interrupt her, “but I have… what? Cancer?” I think I might throw up. I think I might explode. I think I might actually die.
It feels like everything should stop around me, except I can still hear chatter behind me and feel someone approaching me and know there is a phone in my hand still. I can feel my body shaking, inconsolable and disbelieving. My breath catches when I realize I have to tell my parents. What does this mean for me? Do I leave Malaysia? How am I going to handle this? Everything for me stills, but no one else stops moving. They continue on the hike, wade through the afternoon rain, dive deep into the water where the waterfall pools. They are doing what I should be doing, carefree and happily. They go on, but I’m here in this moment, trapped.
The nurse persists on the other line: “Are you alone? I am so sorry you are alone.”
“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
KL, Malaysia: January 16, 2016
There is a concierge service in my Malaysian private hospital. The first floor is brightly lit and lined with advertisements. Prince Court is your path to a cancer-free life. Kuala Lumpur’s premier hospital for oncology care. I never noticed those signs when I came in before. I take a number at registration and watch each number tick closer to my own. 3350. I have cancer. 3351. I have cancer. 3352. I have cancer.
In my Malaysian doctor’s office, everything is pink. Bright pink posters; rose-colored post-it notes and papers; black hijabs with pink and orange and white beads lining the seam; a pink breast cancer ribbon pinned to a nurse’s light pink blouse. This same nurse pulls out another tissue for me, and even the box is pink. Clearly my doctor specializes in women’s health and breast cancer, but what does she know about me? I can see my doctor speaking and hear the words, but it’s too difficult to comprehend what she’s saying. Words crystalize and tears choke my throat: cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, treatment, chemotherapy, radiation. I want to tell her to stop saying the word cancer. It’s too soon to hear that word. I’m too young and healthy for that word. When telling my friends and family, I sputter over that word. Her mouth sharpens over it each time, chipping away at me until I feel nothing else. It seems rude that she would tell me I have cancer without warning me, but the reality is crashing into me and I’m not ready. My truth feels mangled and stripped of its dignity.
KL, Malaysia: January 16-18, 2016
Outside of my hotel room, I play make-believe. I’m laughing, participating in conversations, reciprocating my newfound friends’ hugs and accepting their sympathy. I force myself to eat because I know I should. I’m not sure how someone acts when they are given traumatizing news, but I feel like walking zombie is fair. In my hotel room, I feel under my armpits, around my neck, push lightly against my stomach and inspect my breasts for any lumps. I do this several times throughout the night, compulsively, a creeping feeling that I am getting worse by the minute, by the second. Where is it? Is it spreading? Is that a new mass? Was that there before?
My mother and father and stepfather call me at night, begging me to come home. Let’s figure this out here. Please, we can’t delay this. Before I know it, I’m booked on the soonest possible flight home. I have one more appointment with a hematologist the morning I’m supposed to leave and he explains my disease in detail—very treatable, caught relatively early, enlarged lymph nodes constrained to my upper chest area—but has no answers as to why. How did happen to me? What did I do wrong? No one can tell me, no one knows.
In less than three days of being diagnosed, Fulbright and Malaysia and durian fruit and being cikgu and underground Malaysian malls and speaking broken English to taxi drivers and orientation will all be behind me.
On our last day together, I stand downstairs to say goodbye to everyone leaving for their placements. Smile for smile; hug for hug. “You’re going to kill it,” I say over and over again, realizing later my poor/appropriate choice of words. I wait until my room to collapse. I feel my chest squeeze and my smile breaks apart because I’m so happy for everyone pursuing the next step in the many steps of Fulbright, but I’m also so angry, so incredibly jealous. All I can think: That should be me. That is where I am supposed to be.
KL, Malaysia: January 19, 2016
I stand in line at one of the airport convenience stores, gripping my backpack and five oversized chocolate bars with a cheesy Malaysia emblazoned across the blue and yellow wrapping. Buy four, get one free. Afterwards, I stop in another store and buy two more kid-sized tee shirts and a few postcards, practically throwing my credit card at the guy behind the register. I forgot to get some gifts, but didn’t have time to go back to the local market. I thought I would have more time to purchase thoughtful, unique gifts over the course of ten months in various countries. I thought I had so much time. “You know what,” I say, eyeing a box of durian candies on a rack, “I want those too.”
USA: January 20, 2016
When we land in Cincinnati, I burst into tears. I press my forehead against the pane and cry into the window, all too familiar with the dirty snow and dingy hangers and blinking lights directing us to our gate. Everyone on this commuter plane is white; “Welcome to Cincinnati!” The flight attendant cheerfully announces.
When we pull up to my mother’s house, I sit in the car and stare at the garage door, empty porch chairs, abandoned potted plants and hibernating lawn statues under blankets of snow. I shiver into my jacket. It is cold. My body feels numb. This is a mistake. I let my mother wrap me in a blanket and rub my hair for an hour, ignoring her worried looks and hovering hands, because I have no desire to see anyone, even family I haven’t seen for months. I crawl into my bed and lie there, thankful for the darkness that obscures my thoughts, my body.
I am the bush.
I am burning
I am not consumed.
Today: February 5, 2016
In my first oncologist appointment, I recounted my entire story for my doctors and family to hear, realizing that every misstep and error brought me to this time and space for a reason. While this disease took away my grant and ability to teach in Malaysia for the next months, this same grant is the impetus for how I even came to find out that such a small, seemingly superficial concern hinted at a more sinister issue beneath. This is where I am. This is where I am supposed to be.
Months later, I find myself here with a handful of answers, but no real why in sight. Without the Fulbright, would I have caught this as early as I did? Would I still be in Vietnam? What if I had caught this in Vietnam? Where would I be now? All I know: I don’t think there is a why for all the fucked up things that happen to people. One day, I was perfectly healthy. The next day, I have cancer. I’ve spent countless, restless hours focused on the why: Why me? Why now? As soon as I let go of what this year was supposed to look like, I realized that the why isn’t as important as the what or the how. What happens now? How will I deal with this?
My oncologist and her fellow are these bright and shiny people who thrive on positive energy and endless knowledge about lymphoma/lymphatic system/treatments/trials. A Lego keychain hangs from my fellow’s lapel; she uses it when she tells me to open wide and checks down my throat when we meet. The Band-Aids at the hospital are decorated with cartoon characters and they use tiny butterfly needles and numbing spray when drawing blood. There is always a screaming child in the next room, so I wait and look on as quietly as I can to share the calmness. I watch nurses tap my arm for a good access vein and with no preamble, dark red lines liquefy from my arm and snake into tubes lined up on the table. I count eight my first time.
A few decisions I have made over the course of the past month: I choose to accept this diagnosis as the new normal. I choose to live my truth, however mangled it may seem. I lean on my family and friends—near and far—and I’m imbued by their grace and strength in dealing with this alongside me. While my body is splitting and breaking apart, destroying itself to make room for progress, it is slowly beginning the process for healing. With destruction, there is healing. With healing, there is learning.